White House Wants USDA—Not EPA—to Reduce Agricultural Runoff

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By Amena H. Saiyid

The White House wants the Agriculture Department—instead of the EPA—to address runoff from farms and ranches, according to a directive. But the switch could prove to be another battle for the Trump administration, as it would require congressional approval.

The internal memo specifically seeks to zero out the $164.5 million that the Environmental Protection Agency provided in fiscal year 2016 to states as grants for nonpoint source pollution, saying this is an effort to limit federal investment in duplicative activities. The memo then directs the EPA to “continue to coordinate with the USDA on targeting funding where appropriate to address non-point sources.”Penned by David Bloom, the EPA’s acting chief financial officer, the memo spells out how President Donald Trump would like to see his proposed budget for fiscal year 2018 implemented, that is if Congress approves the request.

“Within the Office of Water’s Clean Water Act-related programs, priority is to be given to functions required by statute and mirrors the overall goal of decreased federal involvement in local programs,” the memo states.

Nonpoint source pollution arises not just from nutrient and sediment runoff on farms, but also from stormwater runoff and heavy metals, trash and fecal bacteria found in urban environments, according the EPA. Heavily farmed counties, like Mower Soil and Water Conservation District in Minnesota, use the grants to monitor water quality improvements on farms that use best management practices such as water and sediment control basins, according to Cody Fox, the district’s project manager.

The EPA maintains that pollution from nonpoint sources remains the largest source of water quality impairment in the nation.

Section 319 of the Clean Water Act authorizes grants to states and tribes for technical and financial assistance, education, training, technology transfer, demonstration projects and monitoring to assess the success of specific nonpoint source projects.

Most Grants to Agricultural Runoff

A Government Accountability Office report, issued in July 2016, found that 55 percent of the nonpoint pollution source grants were aimed at reducing agricultural runoff and 35 percent aimed at urban and stormwater runoff.

“Given that most of the waterbodies on the impaired waters list are impaired due to nonpoint source pollution, this funding source remains critical,” Julia Anastasio, executive director and general counsel for the Association of Clean Water Administrators, told Bloomberg BNA.

“The proposed elimination of this program will result in significant decreases to nutrient reduction programs resulting in more nitrogen and phosphorus entering water bodies because of the reduction in voluntary conservation programs,” she said.

More importantly, Congress directed the EPA administrator to provide funding under the 319 program to states who need help implementing approved nonpoint source management plans, said Brent Fewell, who served as the deputy assistant administrator for water under President George W. Bush, told Bloomberg BNA April 4.

“The budget, which calls Section 319 funding duplicative, I think misses the mark, as this is not a program that lawfully can be delegated to USDA,” said Fewell, who is the managing partner of a Washington-based Earth & Water Law Group. “USDA is a critical partner with EPA in reducing nonpoint source pollution, but USDA is not the agency Congress intended to oversee and carry out the 319 program.”

Uncertainty About Congress

Anastasio doubts whether Congress will agree with the Trump administration’s budget request, “but given all the uncertainty with overall government spending, they may not be able to keep 319 at current levels.”

She said states need both conservation programs at the USDA and Section 319 grants. “They complement each other and the problem of nutrient pollution continues to grow so we need both programs to achieve success and support state activities,” Anastasio said.

Double-Edged Sword

The National Farmers Union sees this directive as a double-edged sword for farmers. On the one hand, the USDA has a much better relationship with farmers than the EPA, which they see as a regulator. But on the other hand, the EPA has the experience in addressing water quality, Thomas Driscoll, director of the NFU Foundation & Conservation Policy, told Bloomberg BNA. “The farmers are very comfortable talking with the USDA, but will that comfort level remain?” asked Driscoll, adding that he would need more details to see how this would play out. The American Farm Bureau Federation, which was an outspoken critic of the EPA under the Obama administration, declined to comment to Bloomberg BNA on the Trump budget proposal.

Republican leaders in Congress have been reassuring the public about the White House budget request, saying Congress will have the final say on EPA spending levels.

To contact the reporter on this story: Amena H. Saiyid in Washington at asaiyid@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

For More Information

The EPA memo on FY 2018 budget request is available at http://src.bna.com/nAU

The GAO report on Section 319 grants is available at http://www.gao.gov/assets/680/678398.pdf

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